I. “Check Out the Scenario”
An introductory course in physics or sound engineering will explain how sound exists on a spectrum of frequencies. While frequencies on the high end are shrill, cutting through the noise at close range, the low end can travel for miles with a commanding presence. Like an earthquake, the low end rumbles and leaves the surrounding landscape changed forever. Though this power is wild and untamed, in 1991, a Tribe of hip-hop artists ventured to wield it to create a monumental album. Nearly 30 years later, the aftershocks of their Low End Theory continue to be felt across the world.
In 1990, A Tribe Called Quest laid the groundwork for their second album, The Low End Theory, with the release of debut effort People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. At the time, The Source praised the record as “a completely original musical and spiritual approach to hip-hop.” Q-Tip’s smooth delivery over jazzy samples (produced alongside Ali Shaheed Muhammad) breathed fresh, melodious air into a hardcore landscape dominated by Public Enemy and N.W.A. Despite the originality of their debut, however, Tip, Ali, and the late MC Phife Dawg sought to reach their full potential.
Shortly after the release of People’s Instinctive Travels, and after parting ways with original member MC Jarobi, Tribe returned to Battery Studios in Manhattan, determined to build on the work they had begun, with a crate of jazz records and enough low end to “shake the Jeep,” according to engineer Bob Power. The resulting album became their masterpiece, a singular effort steeped in tradition, yet innovative.
II. “We’ve Got the Jazz”
As the album begins, Q-Tip clearly identifies The Low End Theory’s goal of innovating the past to make sense of the present. He explains on “Excursions” that as a teenager, “You could find the Abstract listenin’ to hip-hop / My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop / I said, ‘Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles?’” Though some jazz purists won’t admit it, Tribe’s arrival—and hip-hop in general—represented a new cycle of the tradition and spirit fashioned by jazz musicians for over a century.
“[Hip-hop] is just another manifestation of creative expression as a link to the reality of black folks and black youth in particular,” New York saxophonist René McLean told JazzTimes. “Jazz has always had to deal with where people are in that time and place in their history and how they view their world and the communities they came out of.”
Jazz offered its creators a medium to reckon with a history of racism and violence throughout the twentieth century. In 1991, a year marred by the violent beating of Rodney King, Tribe faced the same realities and sought to spread the spirit of jazz to a generation more familiar with Ice Cube than John Coltrane.
From Mickey Bass’s rhythmic bass line sampled on “Excursions” to the lonely soprano saxophone of Lucky Thompson on “Jazz (We’ve Got),” The Low End Theory showcases a devotion to jazz which extends beyond the genre’s most seminal pieces. Though legends like Cannonball Adderley do appear on the record (“The Infamous Date Rape”), it’s Q-Tip’s aptitude for discovering hidden gems that truly shine through.
The Low End Theory isn’t legendary simply because of the quality and scarcity of its samples; it’s how Q-Tip and Ali utilized those unique bits to create something funky and cohesive. Jazz bass legend Ron Carter—who provides an original bass performance on “Verses From the Abstract”—said of the group, “At the time, they seemed like the only [hip-hop artists] who understood the relationship between the rhythm and the beat.”
Tribe expertly weaved together performances from some of the world’s greatest musicians and in so doing innovated their craft. For an example of this mastery, look no further than the mid-album track “Check the Rhime.” While the common practice of the era was to take a breakbeat from a soul or funk record and loop it to create a drum track, Q-Tip saw an opportunity for improvement by layering multiple beats on top of each other.
As the track begins, you hear a punchy beat lifted from Dalton & Dubarri’s “I’m Just a Rock ‘N’ Roller,” which is amplified by an isolated snare from Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Hydra.” After approximately 10 seconds, Q-Tip drops another beat from Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Hihache” overtop and lets the bass drum rumble unrestrained. Apparently, that still wasn’t enough low end for Tip, who then added a thunderous bass drum fill from Biz Markie’s “Nobody Beats the Biz” to close the record.
Ali, who had built beats with Tip for years, was even shocked by the process. “I was just so accustomed to taking empty drum loops and leaving them solo or layering them with other electronic sounds,” he told VH1. “But man, when he did that, it was next level, like ‘OH, you can DO that?!?’”
As if the drum production wasn’t an impressive enough feat, “Check the Rhime” also features a groovy verse riff from Minnie Riperton’s “Baby, This Love I Have,” a woozy organ chord from Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto,” and of course, the instantly recognizable saxophone riff from Average White Band’s “Love Your Life.”
When these individual snippets of classic melodies combine with the gravitas of Tip’s multi-layered drumbeats, the result is perfection; an orchestrated, but free-flowing collision of voices which embodies the heart of jazz.
III. “I Gotta Speak the Truth, Man”
While much of The Low End Theory’s legacy rides on its musicality and production, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s words play an important role in furthering Tribe’s overall mission. In fact, the lyrical meaning of the album title is as important to their thesis as the booming bass.
“The Low End Theory was about black folks just being on the low end of the totem pole,” Q-Tip explained on Hip-Hop Evolution. Years later in an interview with Trevor Noah, he explained that Tribe sought through their music to “present this tapestry that really shows the truth that we’re all joined together truly” on an equal plane, not subject to a capitalist system where fear leads to the rise of the rich and the degradation of the poor.
While artists like KRS-One and Public Enemy made their socially conscious messages unmistakably clear, Tribe’s approach was less direct, often interweaving social commentary with humor and the mundanity of everyday life. On “Verses From the Abstract,” we hear Tip enjoying himself (“Once had a fetish, fetish for some booty / Now I’m getting funky in my rap and that’s my duty”), but also reminding us of a need for change (“So listen because the Quest is led through the underground / My people have been oppressed too long, no more will we be down”). This “abstract” approach to social commentary is, in part, what allowed Tribe to remain socially conscious while spreading the Zulu Nation’s values of “peace, unity, love, and having fun.”
Perhaps the best marriage of humor, storytelling, and commentary is on “Everything Is Fair.” Here, Tip recounts a story about his affections for the elusive, fame-seeking Miss Elaine. “Tried to make my moves on Miss Elaine, she called me young boy / Told her not to diss me I just wants to be your love toy,” Tip raps. As the story continues, Elaine and Q-Tip resort to violence and drug dealing to pursue their passions because, as the Funkadelic sample tells us, “Everything is fair when you’re living in the city.” The story warns that lust, whether motivated by money or fame or beautiful people, can drive anyone to take extreme measures, especially when suppressed to the “bottom of the totem pole.”
Tribe’s content often centered around the ups and downs of city life, but stabs at a suppressive music industry are prevalent on The Low End Theory. On “Show Business,” Phife Dawg shares his frustrations with the undervaluing of his work (“You go and sell my tape for only $5.99 / Please n****, I’ve worked too hard for this / No more will I take the booty end of the stick”), and Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar sympathizes with Phife on his guest verse, rhyming, “They're giving you the business and putting on a show / You're a million dollar man that ain't got no dough.” And, of course, there’s Tip’s famous jab (“Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty / Record company people are shady”), which was spurred by dubious record deals and the flubbing of sample clearances.
Tackling the injustices faced by African-Americans was essential to The Low End Theory, but perhaps equally important was the playfulness with which Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and a number of their collaborators traded bars, helping to make the album feel like a family project. The duo’s dialogue on “Check the Rhime” conveys their long-lasting friendship as they reminisce about growing up “back in the days on the boulevard of Linden,” and their interplay serves to strengthen the skill set of both emcees. “It just felt like if it was the Beatles, and John would sing lead on one and then Paul would sing lead on another and John would be backing him up,” Q-Tip told Rolling Stone.
This friendly competition spread to Tribe’s collaborators as well, leading to a premier posse cut featuring one of hip-hop’s wildest verses ever. On album closer “Scenario,” Tribe and Leaders of the New School share five blistering verses over a sparse, but hard-hitting Jimi Hendrix drum sample; though there are “no holds barred” by any of the participating MCs, it’s Busta Rhymes’ closing verse which continually inspires rappers to let loose.
In what would become a career-defining moment, Busta creates a library of vocabulary, aggressively serving absurdities like “Chickity Choco, the chocolate chicken” and using hilariously braggadocious scare tactics: “Try to step to this, I will twist you in a turban / And have you smelling rank like some old, stale urine.” He doesn’t really rap about anything, but it’s impossible to forget a verse wherein Busta “booms” like a cannon and roars “like a dungeon dragon.”
“Scenario” was a perfectly fun ending to an album which never takes itself too seriously and nevertheless changed hip-hop history.
IV. “Things Go In Cycles”
Upon release, The Low End Theory was immediately lauded as a classic, receiving a five-mic review from The Source. It earned a platinum plaque less than four years later. The album became the quintessential work of the Native Tongues movement, offering a funky, off-the-wall, and Afrocentric alternative to West Coast gangsta rap and broadening the scope of hip-hop expression. In the decade to follow, artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Common would carry Tribe’s socially conscious legacy.
Many of today’s most influential producers continue to praise and emulate Tip and Ali’s production techniques. In a 2013 interview with Sway, Kanye West praised the album’s influence, saying, “A lot of the melodies and the type of chords they would sample…was what I was going for when I did The College Dropout.” In a deleted scene from the documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, Pharrell Williams lauded The Low End Theory as a producer’s Bible, telling Michael Rapaport: “It's music theory for anybody that wants to be a producer. Go study that.” And if praise from two of the most important hip-hop producers of the 21st century isn't impressive enough, according to Tip, Dr. Dre's own masterpiece, The Chronic, was crafted after the West Coast legend heard The Low End Theory.
Just like Tip prophesied on “Excursions,” “things go in cycles,” and meaningful art will always inspire a new generation to carry on the hopeful and universal spirit of music.